My dear law students,
Occasionally (thank God for that), I get this question from law students: what is the point of law school? Usually, this question is from the senior years, when some unexpected free time allows students to consider such questions. I went through this phase myself when I was in the fifth year. It passes.
The question is not entirely pointless, as legal education, especially in the United Kingdom, was historically based on internships with legal practitioners rather than through formal legal education. Even today, one does not need a three year law degree in the United Kingdom to enter legal practice. Nevertheless, I belong to the group that believes a three or a five year legal education is an ideal start for a budding lawyer.
The point of law school is to push you to do things you think you are not capable of doing. You might say this will happen in law practice anyway. You will be given work that you will find impossible to handle in the beginning but will end up doing as a matter of course. But real life experiences should be learning experiences only as a dessert, not as a main course. Besides, your mentors at law practices have their primary duties towards their clients. The good bosses will mentor you, but that’s not their day job. Your skills development will happen, but will happen incidentally, not as a result of a deliberate process.
A good law school that is serious about its law students will push students to exercise their imagination and their creativity while also making them technically sound. This will be a priority and by design, not an incidental effect of classes and assessments. This, I hasten to add, is not based on the American law school model where one sinks or swims and everyone is judged by one standard and is measured on a curve. That’s a zero sum game and law school is the poorer for it. I mean a system where the law school’s academics and assessments, while conforming to some uniform patterns and rewarding students for their efforts, make the law come alive for every student. I have discussed how a law school can do so elsewhere.
A good law school will require teachers to push students out of their comfort zones. We will ask you to read the bare texts and case law by yourselves and answer questions. You might complain that you need a textbook. You don’t need a textbook; years of high school education in India have conditioned you to think that you need a textbook for every proposition. We will ask you to read a legal scholar’s article before you come to class. You might push back stating that the article is too theoretical. Nothing is too theoretical for a lawyer. Every interpretation of a statute is based on a certain theory. We will give you multiple and regular assessments. You might say that we are making law school all about assessments. Quite the contrary actually; we don’t want you to drive yourselves towards one big determinative assessment at the end, like the board exams do.
The other exciting aspect of law school is that it gives you a holistic context in which to study law. Cricket fans will remember CLR James’ famous quip: ‘what do they know of cricket who only cricket know’? I should say the same thing about the law. One can learn more about the law by studying areas other than the law. We will ask you to learn from history, sociology, economics and accounting. You might tell us that you studied science in senior high school and don’t know anything about history and political science. We will say that’s splendid news. You will learn new vistas anew and will be the better for it. You might say accounting makes your head hurt. We will say that’s exactly what accountants have been doing to everyone else for a long time. It’s time to join their party.
One final point, and stay with me here, because what I am saying is going to sound weird to you. A good law school is meant to show what an honourable life is meant to be. You hear about lawyers disrupting court proceedings or making fallacious arguments and I won’t fault you for laughing or weeping at my statement, depending on your disposition. Hear me out for a little bit. Young people can make their careers in a variety of professions like medicine and engineering. Why bother with the law? Money alone can’t be the reason, although I agree that the fact that some practices of law are lucrative is an important factor in joining the profession. When I meet law aspirants, I always ask them this question: what do you think law school will do to you? Some of them say hold on, let me just clear CLAT first, let’s worry about law school later. Some say it’s because law will make them do something they have not done before. Some others say they want their views expanded or changed, or they want to think better. I find these latter answers really compelling. To lead a honourable life is to always open yourself to new ideas and to correcting old mistakes. There is no greater honour than re-assessing rights and wrongs after deliberation. Only (a good) law school can teach you how to do that, in a way that enriches you and the community around you. Let the coders read Python, you have bigger prey to swallow.
Note: This letter has been reproduced after taking Professor Nuggehalli’s consent.
To read more from the series on ‘Letter to Law Students’, you could check out Professor Nigam Nuggehalli’s LinkedIn page here. You could read more about Professor Nigam Nuggehalli here.
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